This is fast approaching being the wildest week in the history of professional wrestling, rivaling WWE’s purchase of WCW in 2001. Less than a day removed from rumors that Vince McMahon was on the verge of selling WWE to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, new reports have emerged that AEW owner Tony Khan, and his father (Jaguars owner Shad Khan) have made a merger proposal that would see the Khans buy into WWE and bring together the two largest professional wrestling companies in the world.
Reports of a potential merger are being met with surprise, excitement, and a heaping helping of acrimony. Tribalism inside the two brands over the last four years has been one of the most toxic elements of professional wrestling fandom — with a vocal minority on each side attacking each other over who’s “better,” and defending their favored brand like it was a sovereign nation.
The truth is, WWE and AEW have two very different approaches to professional wrestling, catering to different audiences. WWE’s focus remains on mainstream mindshare, making itself synonymous with wrestling to a wide audience, and tailoring its programming to a broad age group. AEW, on the other hand, has cut its teeth catering to hardcore, niche wrestling fans — who predominantly rejected WWE’s broad approach and were either lapsed wrestling fans, or pivoted to watching independent or Japanese wrestling as a result.
A future where these two visions merge is scary, it’s also exciting. It might be the best thing to happen to the business, or the absolute worst. There are so many variables here that it’s worth diving into the moving parts and exploring what a merger of this nature would mean for wrestling.
Competition is good. Consolidation is bad
This is the biggest, and best argument against a potential merger between the two brands. When it became clear following AEW’s launch that there was enough of an audience to keep it afloat, competition forced WWE to lift its game.
For, really the majority of the 2010s, WWE was largely stagnant. The company had three accepted “eras” over this time, the PG era, reality TV era, and the New Era — but all three washed together to make a pretty unpleasant soup. The company simultaneously tried to position itself as programming for children, an extension of reality TV, while also a serious wrestling company. The result was bland. Most die-hard wrestling fans found themselves moving over to watch NXT, WWE’s developmental brand, while ratings steadily dropped for the company’s two marquee shows, RAW and Smackdown.
Being pressured by AEW vastly improved the product of WWE proper. Early attempts to challenge AEW by putting NXT head-to-head against Dynamite in the “Wednesday Night Wars” failed for WWE, with AEW routinely beating its competition. This led to focused efforts to make the WWE product better, and this largely succeeded.
Young wrestlers were brought up to the main roster to provide opportunities to new talent. Storylines became deeper, and handled with more care than prior to AEW’s launch, and the collective success of every wrestling company, all the way down to the independent scene, led many to calling this the “Golden Era,” because essentially every wrestling fan can find a thriving company producing the kind of content they enjoy.
There’s significant fear that without competition the motivation for improvement disappears. It could lead to move back to a mindset that favors coasting over innovation — not just for WWE, but AEW as well. AEW would have significantly less pressure in pushing itself without looming TV rights agreements waiting for them, with broader rights negotiated for both sides of the company.
It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, or which brand you support: Competition is good. Pressure forces innovation, and any time we see large conglomeration from competitors it tends to result in consumers losing out on the back end.
That said, AEW getting involved is MUCH better than Saudi Arabia buying WWE
There is absolutely no doubt that the worst possible outcome of a WWE sale would be seeing Saudi Arabia control the company. We’ve discussed the myriad reasons why this would be terrible, and nothing has changed on that front.
If you’re looking at a preference sheet of what would be best for the business it would probably go:
No. 1: Media company buys WWE
No. 2: Investment company buys WWE
No. 3: WWE merges with AEW
No. 999: Saudi Arabia buys WWE
A merger could be a huge boon for worker rights
Unquestionably the worst business practice WWE continues is how it treats its workers. For years WWE has bent tax laws to classify its wrestlers as “independent contractors.” This has absolved WWE from a majority of employment productions granted to full-time employees, including not providing benefits — while also somehow ensuring its independent contractors can’t work for any other company, or pursue revenue streams outside of WWE.
This is a routine criticism of WWE’s practices, and remains in place largely out of fear from wrestlers they can’t find employment elsewhere, or the belief that any challenge would get buried in the court system — with WWE eventually winning by attrition.
Meanwhile, AEW has been lauded since its inception for its employee rights. Many wrestlers are either true independent contractors who are able to work for other wrestling companies and pursue their own independent bookings, or occupy full time positions inside the company where they supplement their in-ring work with office duties, creative responsibilities, or organizational tasks.
In addition, much is made of the lighter AEW work schedule. Rather than talent being expected to wrestle 2-3 times a week either on TV or in untelevised house shows, wrestlers traditionally work one match a week at most. In addition the company operates almost seasonally, with the time between each quarterly pay per view being an opportunity to rotate out talent, let some wrestlers get significant rest, and showcase other workers — particularly in the lower to middle cards.
There’s a lot of hope that merging the two companies could lead to standardization of work practices — which would more likely see WWE adopt some of AEW’s policies than the inverse. This would be the biggest jump to worker rights WWE wrestlers have ever seen, and vastly improve their quality of life.
This could be brilliant, if the brands stay separate
If this merger were to happen, both sides need to learn from the sins of the past. One of the biggest mistakes in wrestling history comes from the mishandling of the WCW “Invasion,” which took one of the most memorable angles in wrestling history and turned it into an utter mess.
When the dust settles it was clear that the better path would have been to keep WCW as a separate brand, but with WWE’s stability and management to change its direction — rather than try to integrate WCW talent into WWE and watering down the product as a result.
This is a very different situation. Neither company is failing, but the point remains: AEW and WWE have to remain separate entities with almost no crossover. These are two different TV audiences who don’t need to feel pressured into having to watch 4-5 nights of wrestling a week just to feel like they know how stories are progressing.
The exception can, and should be rare marquee dream matches — or potentially a once-per-year super show, where talent face off regardless of brand. Who doesn’t want to see Ricochet vs. Ray Fenix, or Kenny Omega wrestle Sami Zayn?
Dream matches would be amazing — provided there’s restraint in still keeping each core audience.
Could this actually happen?
Honestly, I don’t know. At this point the power appears to be in Vince McMahon’s hands, and he’ll need to answer to answer the question “What’s more important: Ego or legacy?”
McMahon’s legacy took a deserved hit with details surrounding his sexual misconduct and hush money payments that resulted in him walking away from in disgrace in 2022. If he were to sell his company to Saudi Arabia it would solidify his disdain for fans and the industry. It would preserve his ego, however, allowing him to go out on his terms and by his own hand.
Merging with AEW is an inverse option. This would definitely be seen as a “loss” for McMahon’s ego, essentially selling part of his company and losing control to a smaller competitor. However, it would preserve the long-term future of WWE and keep it as a US-based company, which would hugely benefit how McMahon is viewed far into the future.
With all the factors at play a potential merger between AEW and WWE feels very, very unlikely — but it’s something to watch, because talks appear to be happening. This would change the future of wrestling forever. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you.